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meaningful life

I recently attended Camp FI in Florida with 60 other personal finance and FI nerds. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet people on similar paths, discuss topics that interest us, and have a ton of fun! 

As part of the camp, there are camper-led breakout groups on a variety of topics. One of the topics proposed was discovering meaning and purpose

I’m all about discovering meaning and purpose, so I was drawn to the topic and decided to attend. 

Fairly quickly, it became clear that for some of the participants, the question wasn’t actually, “How do I discover meaning and purpose in my life?”

Instead, it was, “How do I discover meaning and purpose after retiring early?”

The breakout group was quite large, and I never had the opportunity to share my thoughts with the group. So, I decided to do something very “on-brand” and write a blog post about it.

This post is a labor of love for anyone who attended that session and everyone who is struggling with the question of how to build a meaningful life.

First, I believe we need to stop asking this question in the context of early retirement. How we pose a question can tell us a lot about our assumptions. Asking “How do I find meaning and purpose after retiring early?” is laden with so many assumptions. 

It assumes that:

  • We likely find our primary purpose, meaning, and identity in our work. So, we’ll need to find a new purpose and identity after retiring early since we’ll no longer have work to provide us with this.
  • Figuring out our purpose would be so time-consuming that we would need to achieve FIRE (or at least be close) so we can devote 100% of our time to it. 

These are both erroneous assumptions, which we’ll discuss more in this post. 

Instead, I’d encourage us all to ask, How do I build a life of meaning and purpose right now?

In my mind, there are three main steps we can take to discover meaning and purpose in our lives. We need to:

  • Decouple our identity from our work
  • Reclaim and expand our identities
  • Take action now to align our resources (time, money, and energy) to what matters most to us 

Let’s dig in. 

1. Decouple our Identities From our Work

It’s taken me years (and I’m still a work in progress) to decouple my identity from work. Until 2018, my life consisted of working, commuting, preparing for work, stressing about work, and recovering from work. I saw myself as an ambitious nonprofit HR professional and thought that would be the main way I would make my mark on the world. 

Tying my identity so much to my work was extremely unhealthy. I pushed myself to do what it took to get the next promotion, because maybe (just maybe…) people would actually listen to me once I achieved it. Then, maybe (just maybe…) I’d be able to make the impact I wanted to within the organization. And, the salary increase made me feel important and valuable. 

Well… things don’t always go as hoped. 

This all came crashing down in the summer of 2018. I finally received the coveted promotion. Less than 2 weeks later, I had a complete mental breakdown. I started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks which were so severe that I ended up needing to take 6 months off from work to recover. 

My self-worth and identity were tied up in my job title, how much money I made, and the impact that I thought I could make in the organization.

When that fell apart, I didn’t know who I was anymore. It felt like my meaning, purpose, and identity were taken away from me. 

And, I knew I couldn’t keep living this way.

Why Work has Become Such a Large Part of Our Identities 

I started to explore theories about why work has become such a large part of our identities. What I found was eye-opening. 

Here’s an excerpt from another blog post I wrote called You Are Not Your Job: How to Reclaim your Identity about what I learned in this quest. 

“In the early 1900s, economists predicted that by the 21st century, people would only work 15 hours/week. With the rise of automation and efficiency, people would spend most of their time in leisure. This prediction did not come to fruition, particularly for college-educated people.

Along with the rise of automation came the decline in community, religion, and ways that people found meaning outside of work. Without external forces to ground them, many people have started to treat work in the ways that people used to treat religion. From work, they expect to find purpose, community, and identity.

I love this quote from the Atlantic article, ‘The economists of the 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that for college-educated elites, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community.’”

Wow. I realized that I had been treating work as means of identity production. I was expecting identity, transcendence, and community. Our society and the media had reinforced this message over and over again. But, as I now realize, work was never built for that. 

Why Over-Identifying With Work is Such a Problem

I was floored when I learned that over-identifying with work is a way that we “objectify” ourselves. I used to think of objectification as focusing on someone’s physical appearance.

But, I’ve come to learn that objectification simply means that we reduce someone’s (or our own) worth down to a single characteristic. This characteristic doesn’t have to be physical appearance. It can also be our salary, our job title, or our productivity.

We know that focusing on one characteristic of someone else, particularly what they can do for us, is unhealthy. So, why are we totally fine with treating ourselves in the same way?

Any kind of objectification can lead to a variety of problems:

  • Depression
  • Reduced problem-solving capabilities
  • Sacrifice other areas of our life (health, relationships, and personal fulfillment)
  • Feeling disconnected from who we are and what we truly want. 

It was powerful to learn that I wasn’t alone. I was part of a phenomenon that is impacting people across the globe. And, I knew that I needed to start decoupling my identity from my work if I was going to get anywhere. 

2. Reclaim and Expand Our Identity

After realizing that I needed to stop over-identifying with work, I knew I needed to reclaim and expand my identity. But, what did that actually mean? And, how could I go about doing it?

I knew that I wanted:

  • Work to become one of many important parts of my life and identity
  • Recognition that my value is not found solely in what I can produce
  • A well-developed sense of self (to know what I enjoy and value most)
  • A sense of purpose to guide my decisions

My next question was, “Where do I start?”

I sought out a bunch of resources from different publications including Psychology Today, Psych Central, The Atlantic, Harvard Business Review, and more. Beyond that, I read books, listened to podcasts, and tested things out. 

Here is what I learned. 

Strategy #1: Start Reclaiming Your Time

For me, reclaiming my time looked like taking 6 months off of work on medical leave and going back to work part-time.

After getting to such a severe level of burnout, I was able to apply for short and long-term disability benefits. During my 6 months off, I focused on self-care. I slept whenever I felt tired. I took walks outside. I read books. I did intensive mental health counseling and got on medication for my anxiety. And, I reconnected with myself and what I really wanted.

Most importantly, I articulated a new definition of success for myself. Success would no longer revolve around climbing the corporate ladder and gaining more influence. Success now meant that I was crystal clear about what I valued and had the time and energy to focus on those things

After this 6-month period, I was able to return to work, but I was still in burnout recovery mode. I decided to quit my stressful, toxic, full-time job and found a new part-time job in my field.

Working three days per week allowed me to continue recovering from burnout and building healthy habits. I gave myself time and energy to focus on what mattered most to me. 

To be clear, my situation is a pretty extreme example. I hope that you take action earlier and never get to a similar level of burnout. 

boundaries no burnout

To prevent this level of burnout, here are ways that you can start reclaiming some of your time right now:

  • Take all your vacation time (or actually take time completely off if you are an entrepreneur)
  • Intentionally disconnect from work (including thinking about work) on the weekends
  • Set boundaries around start and end times and don’t do anything that’s not truly urgent outside of your typical work hours
  • Negotiate certain work responsibilities to be removed from your job
  • Say no to things that aren’t part of your job (where possible)

Once you start doing these things, you may realize that you want even more time to focus on the things you value. When this happens, you could consider:

When we open up space in our lives, we get to decide how we fill the time. 

Strategy #2: Explore What You Love to Do

Some of you may have hobbies and interests that, if you had more time, you’d love to pursue. If this is you, awesome! You know exactly how you want to spend your reclaimed time. 

Or, you might be like me. When I started this process, I was so out of touch with myself that I had absolutely no idea what I enjoyed doing anymore. I couldn’t remember the last time I did something solely for fun, just for me. 

If you resonate with this, I’d recommend some reflection to come up with a list of things you:

  • Could love to do
  • Want to try
  • Enjoyed doing at other times in your life 
fun bubbles outside

Pull out a journal and ask yourself these questions:

  • What did I do for fun in different periods of my life (childhood, teenage years, college, 20s, etc.)? What does this tell me about the types of activities I could try out now? 
  • What were some things that I’ve seen other people do that look like fun, but I’ve never tried before?
  • If I suddenly received an inheritance from some long-lost uncle that would cover all my expenses, what would I want to do with my time? (I like this question as opposed to the winning the lottery question because it doesn’t imply that we now have unlimited money forever. We’ll simply have enough). 
  • What types of activities energize me in my day-to-day life right now? After what activities do I have more energy than when I started? How can I do more of these? 
  • What types of activities bring me down and drain my energy? How can I do less of these things? 

We can’t just sit around reflecting and expect to figure out what we love to do though. We have to try it out too! So, after you make your list, narrow it down to 3-5 things you want to test. 

From my reflections, I realized that I could love:

  • Travel and adventure – I’ve loved traveling in the past. Besides planning trips, how could I make local adventures (and trying new things) part of my everyday life?
  • Photography – I loved taking photos when I was a kid.
  • Reading – I realized that I loved reading long, in-depth series. 
  • Writing – I loved to share the things that I was learning.
  • Board games – I loved playing games with friends. Would this be something I want to dig further into? 

Great! But, then, I needed to test them out. Over the next year, I:

  • Signed up for a photography class
  • Found fun experiences in my local community (longer hikes and blueberry picking)
  • Read some nerdy sci-fi and fantasy series
  • Started a blog (this one!)
  • Dug into board games and realized that I loved to play cooperative board games (ones where you are working as a team to beat the game). 

Once you start testing things out, you’ll start to hone in on the things you truly love to do (and rule out the things you don’t). 

Having more fun in our lives provides us with more energy and allows us to be resilient, which helps build a virtuous cycle. 

Strategy #3: Articulate What’s Important to You 

Once you open up space in your days and (re)learn what you love to do, it’ll be a lot easier to articulate what’s most important to you.

There are many ways to go about doing this, such as:

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to start to uncover what’s most important to you:

  • What is my goal for work? 
  • How do I want work to fit into my life?
  • What do I want to make time for?
  • What really frustrates me?
  • What gets me really excited and motivated?
  • What do I value most?
  • What conditions do I need to thrive? 

All these questions (as well as taking action) will help you uncover what you value most. 

After working through this process, I know that the things I value most are:

  • My health
  • Relationships with my family and close friends
  • Adventure
  • Feeling calm and balanced
  • Helping people have light-bulb moments

Once you articulate what’s most important to you, you can start aligning your time and energy toward those things. 

Strategy #4: Consider the Mark You Want to Make on the World

Reclaiming your time, figuring out what you love, and determining what you value most will help you with the last (and most important) thing. This is to consider the mark you want to make on the world.

What do you want your legacy to be?

This can sometimes feel like a big and scary question. I’ve heard many people suggest reflecting on how you want to be remembered when you die. There are even people who recommend writing your obituary. To be honest, I don’t think it needs to be so morbid. 

legacy help others

The questions I like to ask myself are:

  • What do I want to be known for? 
  • If someone asked, “Who is Jess? What matters to her?”, how would I want them to respond?
  • What mark do I want to make on the world? 

Every year as part of my annual visioning process, I define what I want my legacy to be.

This year, here’s how I’ve articulated it.

Jess abso-freaking-lutely loves her life, and she inspires others to believe they deserve to thrive and can take (small and big) steps towards a thriving life. She uses her actions and voice to help build a world where more people have the conditions they need to thrive. 

I’ll call attention to one important point. In no place does this vision mention work. In fact, I can use this vision to guide my actions in all areas of my life.

3. Take Action Now to Align your Resources (Time, Energy, and Money) with what Matters Most

You don’t have to wait until you reach FI or some other arbitrary financial milestone to discover and build a meaningful and purposeful life.

It’ll take time to understand what matters most to you, what you love to do, and the mark you want to leave on the world. It’ll take energy and effort to set boundaries and reclaim your time. Then, you’ll need to test things out to see if they are really “you.”

But, you don’t need full financial independence and time freedom to get started. 

Start with what you have, whether that be only 30 minutes each week or a 6-month sabbatical.

This process is a virtuous cycle and builds on itself over time. Reclaiming your time allows you to explore what you love and what matters most. As you explore and experiment, you can better articulate the mark you want to make on the world. That leads to continued exploration and growth. Soon, you start to fall in love with the journey of discovering what’s most meaningful to you. 

Start Asking New Questions to Build a Meaningful Life Today

Let’s stop asking, “How do I find meaning and purpose after retiring early?” Instead, let’s ask, “How do I build a life of meaning and purpose right now, no matter where I am on my FI journey?

My goal is to design a life that I don’t want to retire from. I want a life that’s so full of meaning, purpose, freedom, and flexibility along the path to FI that it makes a desire to retire early feel obsolete. 

Perhaps, I will reach FI and have the ability to retire early in my 40s or 50s. Who knows? That would obviously be great.

Yet, my hope is that my life looks very much the same before and after I achieve this milestone. I want to take consistent small steps over time to align my life with my values. So, when I reach FI, it’ll just be another day. I’ll already be living my ideal life, and it’ll be full of meaning, purpose, and fun.

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